Evita at the Gem Theater

An Enormous Bit of Star Quality

By Tom Titus

Mentioning the words “Evita” and “Adriana Sanchez” in the same breath should be sufficient motivation to send local theatergoers streaming toward Garden Grove’s Gem Theater where the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is enjoying a superb revival.

The first lady of Orange County musical theater surpasses her past successes with a stunning portrayal that scores as highly in emotional gravitas as it does musically. It is, quite simply Sanchez’s best work in many years of outstanding stage performances.

Sanchez beautifully brings out the fiery ambition that drove Eva Duarte from the rural slums of Argentina (“A Little Touch of Star Quality”) to the presidential palace where, as Eva Peron, she was venerated by hordes of working-class Argentines. It was an abbreviated reign since Eva succumbed to cancer at the age of 33.

The Gem rendition — directed by One More Productions artistic director Damien Lorton, who also serves as musical director – has but three primary characters, but a huge fourth emerges in the form of the nameless ensemble which functions as a skillfully drilled unit under the guidance of choreographer Shauna Bradford-Martinez.

Many Evitas have come and gone over the years (most recently this season at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts), but few, professional or amateur, can match the fierce determination Andriana Sanchez brings to the character as she scratches and claws her way out of poverty and uses romance as a checkerboard to advance her ambitions jump by jump. Her dynamic dramatic talent almost makes one forget the haunting power of her voice when she raises it in song.

Matching her in intensity is her primary antagonist, Che (who may or may not represent the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevera; opinions differ). Danny Diaz (the Gem’s box office manager) delivers a powerful performance as this angry everyman who challenges Evita at every turn. Their tense waltz together as they warily size each other up is a high point of the show.

One might imagine Sanchez has a contract dictating that Christopher Peduzzi appear opposite her – this is their eighth show together. Peduzzi assumes a regal bearing as Juan Peron, the mighty general who becomes Argentina’s president and devotes himself to Eva’s well being. It’s a strong, steadfast interpretation.

Jon Korbonski (Magaldi) and Olivia Rybus (Peron’s mistress) acquit themselves admirably in their featured roles, then join the splendid ensemble which represents Argentina’s army, its upper-class snobs and the citizenry in general. Seldom has a chorus functioned with such impressive unity.

“Evita” continues at the Gem (12852 Main St., Garden Grove) Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. until July 20. Reservations may be obtained by calling the theater at (714) 741-9550, ext. 225.

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